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Better late than never - ‘Black Widow’ spins its web

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The past couple of months have seen a slow and uneven return to movie theaters. Films that were delayed or otherwise impacted by the pandemic are gradually returning, filling the country’s big screens with the outsized sequels and franchise fare that many have spent the past year-plus anticipating.

We watched a battle of the monsters when King Kong fought Godzilla. We held our breaths as Emily Blunt took on alien invaders in near-silence. Chris Rock was in a “Saw” movie and Emma Stone gave us a Cruella de Vil origin story. We even got to see Vin Diesel get faster and furiouser than ever alongside his franchise family and a smattering of movie stars. But even with all that, it was hard to say that the moviegoing experience was truly, fully back … until now.

That’s right - the MCU is on the big screen, baby!

“Black Widow,” the ostensible first installment in the MCU’s Phase Four, has landed, both in theaters and via premium access on Disney+. Directed by Cate Shortland from Eric Pearson’s screenplay, the film centers on the titular Black Widow and her doings during the period between “Captain America: Civil War” and “Avengers: Infinity War.”

It’s an interesting choice, taking a leap back chronologically with the leadoff film of the newest phase. And some of the narrative wind has been knocked from its sails due to the pandemic delays – Marvel’s three MCU-connected TV shows were supposed to follow this film; instead, they came first. Those looking for big advances to the overarching MCU narrative will likely come away slightly disappointed; the nature of this film means that major revelations are unlikely. However, when judged on its own merits, “Black Widow” is solid action-adventure; not top-tier Marvel, but far from the worst.

We begin in Ohio in 1995. We watch as a seemingly typical family unit – a dad, a mom, two young daughters – reveals itself to be much more, fleeing their home, engaging in gunfights with law enforcement and ultimately flying away in a single engine plane to land in Cuba, where we learn that they are in fact a Russian sleeper cell – spies who completed their mission to steal valuable data.

From there, we leap forward to 2016. The now-grown elder daughter is Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson, “Marriage Story”). She’s on the run, seeking to evade the pursuing forces of Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt, TV’s “Condor”), who’s looking to lock her up for violating the Sokovia Accords.

Elsewhere, we meet Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh, “Little Women”), the now-grown younger daughter, who has become a member of the elite Russian fighting force known collectively as the Black Widows. She chases down a rogue Widow, only to be exposed to a chemical that undoes the effect of the mind-control agent administered to all Widows by the administrators of the infamous Red Room. Yelena comes into possession of more of the chemical and takes it, fleeing the mysterious assassin known as the Taskmaster to make her escape.

Yelena sends the chemical to Natasha, who in turn seeks to track down the one who sent her. The once-sisters reunite and come to an uneasy détente, both of them sharing the goal of shutting down the Red Room once and for all.

However, they can’t do it without help. They find themselves seeking out the other members of their former family unit – the boorish Aleksei (David Harbour, “No Sudden Move”), the former Soviet super-soldier once known as the Red Guardian, and the brilliant former Black Widow Melina (Rachel Weisz, “The Favourite”). If they can get the band back together, they could potentially take down the Red Room and its power-hungry leader Dreykov (Ray Winstone, “Cats”).

Of course, it isn’t as easy as all that.

To be clear, I enjoyed “Black Widow” quite a bit. However, I will also confess that I may be biased by the fact that I haven’t seen an MCU feature offering in two years. I was primed to be excited, so I’m not really sure if I can be objective here.

It’s a solid action movie, one that is largely without the superpowered bells and whistles that dominate most MCU films. There’s some of that, of course, but Black Widow has always been one of the nominally “regular” people in these films, albeit a highly-trained assassin and spy. The movie reflects that, giving us a lot of the sort of action set pieces that you’d see from a Bond film or an installment of “Mission: Impossible.” There are some good character moments and some solid jokes and self-aware gags as well. If that sounds like enough for you, you’ll have fun.

However, if you’re coming in hoping for some major piece of the ongoing narrative to be revealed, well … there’s not much of that here. A couple of breadcrumbs, but not much more.

And that’s going to be the primary issue for many viewers. “Black Widow” arrives too late, in a couple of ways. The scheduling delays mean that the film comes out after the release of the MCU TV shows, which causes some issues with chronology that wouldn’t be there otherwise. But the big issue is that the movie itself, the solo film featuring the character, is too late. Her arc has already been closed; the film would have made far more sense if it had been released in its actual spot in the narrative, rather than five years and however many movies later.

Johansson is good here, though one gets the sense that part of her is over the whole superhero thing. Honestly, she might be fourth out of four. Weisz is her usual mesmerizing self, though she’s underutilized here. Harbour is clearly having a blast as the buffoonish Red Guardian; his energy is so good that it (mostly) makes up for his ludicrous accent. But the real revelation is Pugh, who is absolute dynamite in this movie. She’s a great actress, plus she can handle the timing required of these movies, both physical and comedic. Prepare to see a whole lot more of her in the MCU – and that’s a good thing.

“Black Widow” isn’t the best MCU movie. It’s not really in the top tier, really. And it doesn’t offer as many broader connections as we might like. But as far as popcorn-munching action-packed cinematic adventures go, you could do a lot worse.

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 12 July 2021 10:08

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